Sengwer demand recognition as tribe and forest dwellers

The minority community tells President Uhuru to stop their eviction from Embobut forest and harassment by the authorities

In Summary

•The community want to be allowed to continue living in forests, claiming they contribute to conservation efforts.

•They also demand that the police stop violent evictions, burning their houses.

Sengwer houses set on fire by forest officers in Embobut
Sengwer houses set on fire by forest officers in Embobut
Image: FILE

They lived as hunters and gatherers in Embobut forest for centuries and while at it, they got assimilated by their neighbours, making their ancestral forest land dissipate.

Now the Sengrew community is demanding their land back and wants to be recognised as a distinct ethnic group.

The indigenous minority community has, for centuries, lived in Embobut forest. But since Independence, members have been in a collision course with the state, which views them as forest encroachers. They are scattered in pockets across Trans Nzoia, West Pokot and Elgeyo Marakwet counties. 

On October 7, the community petitioned the Office of the President in Nairobi, narrating their ordeals to the head of state and detailing its demands. 

The petition was signed by 270,000 people. The group decries what it calls an atrocious violation of their rights by agents of the state, including the police, whom they accuse of burning their houses and brutalising them while carrying out forced evictions that leave them homeless. They want President Uhuru Kenyatta to end their tribulations. 

They claim they have lived in the forest as its indigenous inhabitants over the years, but owing to changing government policies and ethnocultural dynamics in the area, their identity and heritage have been chipping away by the day, hence portending a real threat to their existence. 

They also want their ancestral land — the forest — reverted to them. 

"We demand that the burning of houses stopped immediately as this has left us homeless. We've had to endure the harsh forest weathers. This has led to poor health of our people and curtailed our potentials," said Yator Kiptum, one of the community leaders. 

Another elder, Joseph Murgwen, said, "We live in constant fear of police brutality and inhuman treatment. They frequently storm into our villages and burn our houses even during rainy weather. We are continuing to suffer as though we are in servitude, yet [we are] in a free land. We need to be recognised and given rights just like other communities."

They say they are a forgotten community and have not benefitted from any government job and affirmative action programmes that would enable them access to opportunities such as education.

Murgwen said their culture is on the brink of extinction because of their assimilation by neighbouring communities. 

In the petition, they stake a claim of the forest as their ancestral land and say they have conserved it for the centuries they have known it as their home. They dismissed the perception that living in the forest would undermine conservation efforts by the state.

"We have lived there for centuries and have always passed down to new generations the traditional ways of sustainably using its resources. We cannot destroy our home," it reads.

They want the restrictions on the responsible use of the forest resources lifted, and house burning, arbitrary arrests and forced evictions stopped.

They are not alone in their demands. Kamau Ngugi, the executive director of Defenders Coalition, has spent his productive life fighting for indigenous communities rights in the country. He gave a clear perspective of the challenges the community faces.

Ngugi told The Star that during the colonial era, the colonial masters started the tradition of violently evicting indigenous communities living in forest areas, claiming they were uncivilised and degrading water catchments.

He said that with Independence, the succeeding government sustained the fight — even more brutally — without caring to know where the displaced forest community would live.

"The Sengwer have symbiotically coexisted with the natural forest for centuries and have always found a way of benefitting from it without impeding its sustainability and conservation," Ngugi said.

While the state is rightly mandated to promote the conservation of the water catchment as many lives depend on it, they should also think of how the men, women and children live, he added.

“The state has consistently violated the Constitution, which mandates it to conserve the cultural heritage of the communities, sustaining their survival while doing other responsibilities," Ngugi said.

Also on board to support the community is Amnesty International Kenya. Executive director, Hougthon Irungu, said the state is obligated to help the Sengwer preserve their culture and identity.

"Articles 7, 11, 44,59 and 100(d)(c) of the Constitution obligates the state to protect them, their language and intellectual property from assimilation," he said.

Besides the petition, the community has another recourse to rely on. Ngugi said that for now, his organisation, alongside the Amnesty International, has been helping the community to fight to reclaim their rights. They rely on the decision by the African Court of Justice in Arusha on the Ogiek case to demand protection of their rights.

The Ogiek, also an indigenous forest-dwelling community, sued the state and the court ruled that their rights had been violated and any conservation efforts must respect their cultural heritage and identity.

“We rely on this court decision to secure the rights of the Sengwer community. We see no need to litigate while there is a precedent already set,” Ngugi said.

"We hope the state does its part with the petition already filed with them."

(Edited by F'Orieny)